Originally, we planned to spend our second summer vacation in Italy. We snagged $500 round trip flights to Rome in late May and figured we would continue exploring the smaller towns of Italy, as we did on our three-week trip in June. However, $500 Paris flights dropped while we were in Italy, and we were immediately intrigued because Paris was not quite as warm as Italy.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
We missed booking those flights and decided to use our AA miles to book a direct flight between DFW-CDG. We contemplated making a short trip to the Alsace from Paris, but when I realized that our trip fell over Bastille Day I knew there would be no shortage of things to do in Paris. I booked a room at the Park Hyatt Paris since we’ve stayed there in the past and know the area pretty well. I figured that even if transportation or museums were limited, I would be able to find things to do in Paris because of my familiarity of how to get around from Vendome.
Throughout 2021 and 2023, we made 5 more trips to Paris and added a few more things to this list!
Make the Most of the Paris Museum Pass
It may seem fairly obvious, but one of the best things to do in Paris right now is to take advantage of the reduced crowds in the Paris museums. While we’ve visited many of the museums during the winter in Paris, it was nice to be able to experience them with the longer days of summer.
Most of the “big” museums are requiring reservations right now, so you’re already going to enjoy reduced capacity. However, I recommend that you purchase the Paris Museum Pass, make reservations, and museum hop to your heart’s desire. The Museum pass offers a 2-day, 4-day, or 6-day option and it allows you to bypass all the lines, particularly at museums that are not taking reservations. We used a six-day pass and made two museum reservations a day. We book the first slot of the day at one museum and the last slot of the day at a second museum. This allowed us to visit museums when they were at their least crowded and take our time. If you try and do too much (or too many museums), it will all start to blur together.
We opt for a combination of DIY audio tours, booking audioguides, and guided tours of museums in Paris. While you can wander through them on your own, I think the experiences are much more robust with a guide of some sort. I’ve included some of my favorite Paris Museum Pass experiences below, but also included information on tours that we’ve enjoyed, just in case you aren’t a museum person.
Visit Monet’s Water Lillies at the Musee de L’Orangerie
The L’Orangerie is one of my favorite things to do in Paris if I have a little extra time and want to be inspired. If you’re a fan of Impressionist art like I am, the L’Orangerie should be your first stop. There are two huge rooms that feature Monet’s Water Lilly paintings with the changing light of the day. The first time I saw them, I was awestruck. I could have stayed there for hour watching how the light reflected off the colors. I love the L’Orangerie because it gives you a close-up view of why the Impressionist painters were so talented.
There is a nice collection of other works by the Impressionists on the lower level. It’s a bit more manageable than the Musee d’Orsay (one of my favorites) and its smaller size lets you see the difference between the individual style of the Impressionists.
In July 2021, we toured the Magritte and Renoir special exhibition, which focused on post-World War II surrealism. I found the exhibit particularly poignant because you can see the contrast between the dark times and the optimism that people were holding onto for the future. Magritte’s work, which contrasts sharply against Renoir, shows incredible talent, and a bridge between the impressionist and modern art.
I always recommend that you purchase an audio guide to get the most out of your museum visits, but if that’s not your style, Rick Steves’ Paris offers a guided tour of the museum that gives context to the artists and their work. We supplemented our audio guide with the book. If you don’t opt for the museum pass, I recommend purchasing your L’Orangerie ticket and audio guide in advance.
See the Rotating Collection at Musee Picasso Paris
One of the things I find most intriguing about the Picasso Museum is that the exhibition changes every six months or so. Why? Because it’s designed for locals who want to return again and again. I love that they are able to rotate through the extensive collection by doing this, too.
While we were there, we visited two exhibitions: the Picasso-Rodin exhibition and Picasso’s influence on literature. The Picasso-Rodin exhibit focused on the sculpture collections of these two artists. It was interesting because though some of their inspiration came from the same sources, their artistic renderings could not have been more different.
The specific Picasso exhibit, which encompassed more of the upper floors of the museum, covered all facets of Picasso’s work (though I noticed that there were very few Blue Period paintings), letters from his personal collection (my favorite), and a collection of how his work has been used (and influenced) on book covers over the years. I was really inspired by the beauty of his ceramic pieces – the shapes and the colors brought me a lot of joy.
The piece de resistance for me personally was the particularly satirical Vogue magazine bridal campaign that featured beautiful photographs with a bit of Picasso’s irreverence. A quick google search revealed no hints of this work, so you’ll have to head to museum to check it out!
While I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from an entire museum of Picasso, it definitely made me more excited to visit the Picasso Museum on our next trip to Barcelona.
Enjoy the Sculpture at Musee Rodin of Paris
The Rodin Museum is smaller than the Picasso Museum and offers a beautiful sculpture garden, so if you can visit on a nice day, I highly recommend it. We visited on what ended up being a very rainy day and it was still lovely – wet, but lovely. At the time of visiting, the Rodin museum also was offering a special exhibition featuring the works of Picasso and Rodin side-by-side.
I didn’t know much about Rodin’s sculpture before we visited the museum. (This was Tom’s request through and through.) We used the Rick Steves Paris guide for a walking tour of the museum, which provided enough context for me to better understand what I was seeing. Perhaps one of the most surprising things to me, especially compared to the Picasso museum, is how Rodin seemed to have certain themes that he repeated in his work. The museum holds such an extensive collection that you can see all sizes of Rodin’s significant works, which shows more about his artistic process. I didn’t emerge from the museum as a raging Rodin fan, but I can more accurately identify his work and understand what makes him different from other sculptors of his time.
The Rodin Museum was one of the few museums that was not taking advance reservations for Museum Pass holders, but you can buy a skip the line ticket in advance. Because the museum is smaller, it might be difficult to get a ticket, so I highly recommend buying your ticket in advance.
Side note: Did you know there is a Rodin Museum in Philadelphia? I kept clicking on their website when I was creating our itinerary. If you’re planning in staying in the US for travel, it might be worth checking out for a little bit of French inspiration in the US!
Check Out the 3 Wings of The Louvre Mousem
Admittedly, the Louvre almost always feels busy, even in 2021. Our first visit to the Louvre was during the extended evening hours on Fridays and that always feels like an extra magical experience. Because it is still so popular, I would recommend booking the first time slot of the day. We booked one of the last time slots of the day and used the Rick Steves audio tour of the Denon Wing. We barely made it through, and everything felt a bit too rushed, especially in the last 45 minutes or so. That being said, the changes they have made to the Mona Lisa are really lovely and I hope they will stay. They have made it very easy to stay socially distant and see the painting up close.
My favorite room in the Louvre on this trip was the early Renaissance altarpiece room. Perhaps it’s just my love of Florence, but I find the rich colors of the Renaissance art awe-inspiring. I’m amazed at how the depth of the colors can mimic the realities of shadow and light. (I don’t have these skills.)
If you’re looking for an in-person tour, I cannot recommend this night tour of the Louvre enough. Ignore the reviews – they are far from representative of the museum experience.
Experience the Impressionists at Musee d’Orsay
One of the first museums I fell in love with is the Musee d’Orsay. It feel like a rite of passage to stop by and say hello to Edgar Degas’s beautiful ballerinas. This trip was no exception. We booked a late afternoon time slot on Thursday, which is the day when the museum is open later in the evening. Since we’ve taken several tours of the museum, we opted to use the Rick Steves audio tour on this visit, which covers the ground floor and the beginning of the Impressionist period, the highlights of the major Impressionist works, and ends with some sculptures by Rodin. It’s a good highlight tour if you’re pressed for time but don’t know a lot about the museum.
If this is your first visit to the Musee d’Orsay, I highly recommend this Introduction to the Impressionists tour. This tour teaches you why impressionism was so controversial and revolutionary for its time. It’s a great way to get a better feel for the environment in which the Impressionists were operating, too. For me, taking this tour of the Musee d’Orsay made me better appreciate what I saw in Montmartre and L’Orangerie, though both can be “seen” independently of the museum.
Other Things to Do in Paris with the Paris Museum Pass
See the Eiffel Tower Sparkle from the Arc de Triomphe
The stage was being set up for Bastille Day when we were in Paris, so I found the view from the Champs du Mars to be pretty underwhelming. The increased security around the Eiffel Tower, while completely understandable, has made it difficult to find the perfect view sometimes. Trocadero offers a nice view of the tower, but it can get pretty crowded.
While it’s not an easy climb for everyone, one of my favorite things to do in Paris is to see Eiffel Tower sparkle from the Arc de Triomphe. The Paris Museum Pass allows you to skip the line, which means you can enjoy the tower at any time of day for as long as you like. What I loved about the Arc de Triomphe rooftop is that it didn’t feel crowded and you could take in Etoile from every angle. It’s particularly impressive at night, but sunset and blue hour are stunning, too.
If you skip the museum pass but still want to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle, you’ll want to buy your ticket in advance and make a reservation so you don’t waste your valuable time in line.
I think that Pont de l’Alma offers the best Seine river view of the Eiffel Tower. However, I think that Arc de Triomphe offers the best view of the Eiffel Tower at night. (You could also book an Eiffel Tower view room at the Hyatt Regency in Paris.)
See the Stained Glass in Sainte-Chapelle of Paris
Visiting Ste-Chapelle is arguably one of the most beautiful things to do in Paris and with Notre Dame closed for the foreseeable future, you have no excuse not to visit. Reservations are strongly recommended and it is covered under the museum pass. The lines can get long if you don’t have your ticket purchased in advance, so definitely purchase a skip-the-line ticket for Ste-Chapelle. As far as timing goes, I recommend visiting mid-day on a particularly sunny day for maximum effect. (Same day reservations are available.)
Every so often I’ll visit a church that leaves me positively dumbstruck. Sainte Chapelle is one of those places. I don’t have the words to describe the beauty of stained glass windows. Because of its manageable size, you can take your time and take it in from all angles. (I’ve always felt rushed in Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacre Coeur.)
Visit Musee de l’Armee at Les Invalides & Napoleon’s Tomb
The Musee de l’Armee is one of the few museums that I could not figure out advance reservations for if you have a Paris Museum Pass. You’ll just have to take your chances, especially if you’re only in Paris for a few days.
A visit to the Musee de l’Armee pairs well with any history tour in Paris. The context of the French Revolution is important in understanding his stratospheric rise to power. One of the things I didn’t know is how Napoleon came to power after the French Revolution. It wasn’t quite the scene that one would imagine given his takeover of so many places. I highly recommend doing a tour before visiting this museum, but if you are interested in France’s military history, this museum is a comprehensive look at it. Personally, I really enjoyed seeing the military uniforms. They have a staggering collection and they were *really* beautiful.
You’ll want to be aware that most of the special exhibitions aren’t covered by the museum pass, so you’ll need to buy tickets for those exhibits.
Take a Food Tour of the Marais Arrondissement
Two years and multiple trips to Paris later, I still consider the food tour of the Marais to be one of the best things to do in Paris, particularly if you’re looking for tasty souvenirs to bring home for friends and family. This particular Parisian food tour focuses a lot more on local products than local restaurants (though you’ll visit a couple of restaurants, too).
All of the shops that we visited are still open in 2023, and we are still bringing a lot of these products home to enjoy. (Our food tour souvenirs needed their own suitcase in 2021. Just kidding. Kind of.) I like this food tour specifically because it’s a good balance between sweet and savory and you get to visit one of the markets in the Marais, Marche des Enfants Rouges.
Enjoy a Food Tour of Montmartre
Every single trip to Paris, I try to take a food tour of the St. Germain arrondissement, and every time, I end up with a tour of a different arrondissement. This year was no exception, and we opted to take a Montmartre food tour in lieu of St. Germain des Pres. This tour, unlike the Marais food tour, was focused on cafes and restaurants, which is an absolutely wonderful way to explore Montmartre. It gets you away from the tourist traps and into the local businesses. You’ll also receive a great overview of Montmartre from the Moulin Rouge to Sacré-Cœur and Place du Tertre (one of my favorite squares in Paris). The Montmartre food tour is more pastry focused than the Marais food tour that we took, though you will have the opportunity to try a few savory treats as well.
Unexpectedly, my favorite thing that we tried ended up being the choupette with Chantilly cream! I learned to make these at the Ritz Paris pastry class I took in 2022, though I haven’t tried to make them at home – yet.
Take a Croissant Cooking Class in Paris
One of my favorite things that we did on our Valentine’s Day trip to Paris was a croissant and baguette cooking class. Chef Didier is wildly entertaining and an extremely talented breadmaker. Seriously. He wins awards despite a gluten allergy and not being able to taste what he makes! This class allows you to go behind the scenes of a French bakery and learn more about making croissants and baguettes.
It’s staggering how long it takes to properly make croissants, pain et chocolat, and baguettes, even with industrial kitchen resources. I developed an even greater appreciation for French pastries after this class. Laugh if you must, but I didn’t even like croissants before taking this baking class in Paris. When I tried croissants in the US, I always found them too greasy. French pastries just hit different.
You are provided the recipes via email at the end of the class! I made the croissants and pain et chocolat as part of our Thanksgiving around the world celebrations in 2020. While my dough wasn’t nearly as beautiful as Chef Didier’s, he did help me troubleshoot it via instagram and my pastries were pretty tasty.
Say Oui to French Cheese Tasting
You will not find anyone more passionate about wine and cheese tasting in Paris than Alex. Even if you aren’t sure if you will like French wine or cheeses, you should take this class. The tasting happens in a small restaurant in Paris (closed for the tasting), and Alex will lead you through the creation of cheese, encourage you to try different things, and explain a lot more about how cheese is made. We also tried Normandy butter, and I don’t know if butter will be the same ever again. I was never a bread-and-butter person until I tried this regional delight. A few weeks later, I tried butter elsewhere, thinking it would be the same. It is not. It is definitely not. I was correct in thinking I should leave my bread alone… unless I have Normandy butter. (It amde visiting Mont Saint Michel so much more tasty! We want to visit Saint Malo now!)
Alex is so fiercely passionate about both wine and cheese. He is wildly entertaining with his enthusiasm, and he genuinely wants to improve your culinary experience in Paris. I’m definitely a cheese novice, and I found his explanations about how cheese is made to be very informative. Maybe not exactly what I wanted to know (lol), but definitely a learning experience to have. Simply put, we loved this cheese tasting in Paris.
Spend a Day (or a Week) at Pastry School in Paris
After taking the croissant and baguette class with Chef Didier and trying different foods in Paris, I decided to take a one day pastry class at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris in February 2022. I came home with three full-size desserts and recipes. When we were in Paris for Christmas in 2022, I took a buche de Noel class one morning. We enjoyed it for dessert throughout our stay at the Park Hyatt Vendome.
This cooking school, located in the Ritz Paris kitchens, is incredible. Classes are taught in French (with translation available), and you’ll learn to make some of the pastries that Paris is famous for from master pastry chefs. The courses are limited to a very small group, so you get a lot of hands on time with the pastries and can easily ask questions.
I loved my one-day class so much that I returned and spent a week at pastry school in Paris in 2022. During that class, we made traditional French desserts like macarons and gateaux Basque, but we also learned to make the famous Ritz’s famous marble cake and an incredible strawberry fraiser. (We stayed at the Hotel Dress Code, which is less than a 5 minute walk from the Ritz Paris, which was perfect for coming back to relax during my lunch break. It also made it easy to get my desserts home every day!)
Am I going back in 2023? Yes.
French Wine Tasting in Paris
I don’t know much about French wine, and what I do know, I’ve learned from Erwan. This wine tasting in Paris is the best way to get comfortable with a French wine list without visiting all the regions. Erwan provides a wine class near the Eiffel Tower with an incredible wine and cheese tasting. He makes it fun and the intimate space facilities great conversation.
Learning that French wines are categorized by region, city, and grape has made it so much easier to navigate wine lists. In this class, you will try five French wines paired with specific cheeses from various regions of France. All of the wines (and others) are available for purchase and are very reasonably priced.
Every time we go to Paris, we try to book this at the start of our trip. We purchase wine from Erwan to enjoy in our hotel room, and he is always happy to make recommendations based on what we’ve tried or what we think we might enjoy! He’s never steered us wrong. (He also ships to the US, if you’re not quite at the wine suitcase level that we’re at yet!)
Learn More about the History of Paris
Take a French Revolution Walking Tour
I’ll be the first to admit that I had a rudimentary understanding of the French Revolution prior to visiting Paris. Outside of knowing who Marie Antoinette was – along with her famous line about cake – I didn’t know much more than that. Thus, it feels particularly fitting that we took a French Revolution tour on Bastille Day and promptly learned that Bastille Day was not the turning point. Despite having visited Paris six times prior to taking this tour, I found it to be particularly enlightening and learned so much about the history of Paris. While I think you can draw parallels between the past and present day at almost any point, there were parts of the French Revolution that felt particularly poignant in 2021.
One of the things that surprised me most from the tour was how the separation between the church and education really started during this time. It’s also surprising to consider how often history has repeated itself with things like the Reign of Terror, the role of the people behind the press / media, and how in-fighting can destroy even the best-intentioned movement.
The other positive thing about this Paris walking tour is that you get to see more of St. Germain des Pres and some of the Latin Quarter. In every trip to Paris, I’m still discovering new places and things to see that don’t hit the guidebooks or my research radar, even in the most popular arrondissements.
Take a Occupation & Liberation of Paris Walking Tour
One of the things I’ve studied quite a bit is World War II history. This World War II walking tour of Paris was really helpful to better understanding the challenges faced by Paris and France throughout the war. I draw the distinction between Paris and France because it’s important to understand that part of France was under German control and part was able to maintain their own government. Paris was under German control for strategic reasons, and this tour does an incredible job of explaining life in Paris under the occupation.
One of the things that piques my interest about taking tours that cover 1939-1945 is learning more about how ordinary people did extraordinary things. Our guide did a great job of sharing more about individual stories of heroism and businesses that did things to protect others. Of the three walking tours we took in Paris on this trip, this tour was the most meaningful and impactful for me.
Explore the Latin Quarter & Paris Writers
You don’t have to be a Hemingway fan to appreciate a walking tour of the Latin Quarter and a history of the literary genius that existed within it. Within the Latin quarter, you can see Roman ruins, the remains of fossils, where George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and others lived (and wrote), and learn more about how education evolved into how we know it. I have the overwhelming urge to read The Moveable Feast after taking this tour, if for no other reason that I need more inspiration to enjoy the culinary delights of my travels and adventures in the kitchen.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time wandering the streets of the Latin Quarter, but we certainly didn’t understand the significance of what we were seeing. Don’t miss visiting the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. Not only does it hold quite a bit of architectural significance for the modern-day church, but the stained glass in it is absolutely beautiful. St. Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris, so you’ll want to learn more about how she has protected the city over the years as well.
After your Latin Quarter tour, grab your Paris Museum Pass and head over to the Paris Pantheon. I loved it for the architecture. It is completely different than the Pantheon in Rome but no less impressive.
Also, the Latin Quarter houses a few of my favorite restaurants in Paris, all of which are pretty budget-friendly.
See the Fireworks at Chateau de Versailles
If you can’t be in Paris on Bastille Day, the Versailles fireworks are the next best option for special things to do in Paris. We toured the Palace of Versailles during the winter, and it was beautiful. It’s nothing compared to gardens of Versailles in the summer, especially in the evening.
If you want to see the Chateau and the Hall of Mirrors, you’ll need to book one of the daytime tours of Versailles. When we visited, we saw the king’s apartments as several other areas were under renovation. After the tour, you can spend as long as you want at the Palace and on the grounds. If you’re up for it, I recommend making the walk to the Trianon Estate, including the Hamlet and the English Gardens.
In the summer, they reopen the Palace gardens on Saturday evenings for a full fountain show and fireworks display. We’re talking triumphant music, ambient lighting, and fireworks! It’s an absolutely incredible spectacular – we did it twice in one trip! (Yes, two Saturdays in a row!) Make sure you wear your walking shoes because you’ll be crossing cobblestones and gravel and the gardens are extensive.
The fireworks don’t go off until 10:50pm, so it can make for a long night. You’ll need to be cognizant of the train and bus schedule or budget for a taxi or Uber back to central Paris. The trip takes about an hour each way, but it is worth it! We were really glad that we went back to do it again. We’re even thinking about staying at the Waldorf Astoria in Versailles for a night or two for our 10th anniversary trip to Paris.
Experience a Secret Paris Passageways Tour
If you’re looking to see some of the smaller streets of Paris beyond the tourist sites, I loved this secret Paris walking tour. In addition to visiting the Madeleine church and the gardens of the Palais Royale, we were able to explore several of the passageways of Paris. It’s dizzying how many arcades there are in Paris, yet this tour highlights some of the best of them. Our tour also included a stop for wine and cheese and finished up with macarons.
Make sure you arrive with enough time to visit the Madeleine church. As a vanity project to Napoleon, it houses some beautiful art. It’s also still a working church, so you certainly get the sense that you’re visiting a church, rather merely a museum or relic of times gone by.
Visit the Church of Saint Sulpice
One of the best things to do in Paris is to go spend a little more time (or revisit) the places you learn more about your tours! For example, thought we had visited this church before, I had never noticed the small design differences in the structure.
Saint-Sulpice, which is both unfinished and not symmetrical, is worth a visit. In addition to being a “working” church, in which you can attend mass, they also hold organ concerts that you can attend. The organ is an impressive site to see whether you attend a concert or not. On our French Revolution walking tour, we stopped by Saint-Sulpice and learned more about how the French Revolution inhibited the design of the church. The interior of the church is fairly austere, especially when compared to the beauty of the stunning stained glass in Ste. Chapelle or the rose window in Notre Dame.
When considered in the context of history, the church is impressive in its own right. Of course, you wouldn’t know all of that without doing all the other things – and coming back for a second look!